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Fourth of July

Natalia J. Garland

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This year I'm celebrating the Fourth of July with a parade of literary quotations. Below are excerpts from essays, speeches, stories, and poems written by people who seem to appreciate some aspect of America. Yes, I know there are problems in America; there always have been. But on the Fourth we honor our country for the ideals of and the realized benefits of liberty and equality.

'An American Among Americans'
In after years, when I passed as an American among Americans, if I was suddenly made aware of the past that lay forgotten,--if a letter from Russia, or a paragraph in the newspaper, or a conversation overheard in the street-car, suddenly reminded me of what I might have been,--I thought it miracle enough that I, Mashke, the granddaughter of Raphael the Russian, born to humble destiny, should be at home in an American metropolis, be free to fashion my own life, and should dream my dreams in English phrases.

---Mary Antin, The Promised Land, 1912.

'Ocean People'
Ocean people are different from land people. The ocean never stops saying and asking into ears, which don't sleep like eyes. Those who live by the sea examine the driftwood and glass balls that float from foreign ships. They let scores of invisible imps loose out of found bottles. In a scoop of salt water, they revive the dead blobs that have been beached in storms and tides: fins, whiskers, and gills unfold; mouths, eyes, and colors bloom and spread. Sometimes ocean people are given to understand the newness and oldness of the world; then all morning they try to keep that boundless joy like a little sun inside their chests. The ocean also makes its people know immensity.

But China has a long round coastline, and the northern people enclosed Peiping, only one hundred miles from the sea, with walls and made roads westward across the loess. The Gulf of Chihli has arms, and beyond, Korea, and beyond that, Japan. So the ocean and hunger and some other urge made the Cantonese people explorers and Americans.

---Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men, 1980.

America the Beautiful
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm they soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

---Katherine Lee Bates, American the Beautiful, second stanza.

'Revolution of America'
The revolution of America presented in politics what was only theory in mechanics. So deeply rooted were all the governments of the old world, and so effectually had the tyranny and the antiquity of habit established itself over the mind, that no beginning could be made in Asia, Africa, or Europe, to reform the political condition of man. Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think.

---Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1792.

Go Down Moses
The Lord told Moses what to do,
Let my people go;
To lead the children of Israel through,
Let my people go.

---Anonymous, Go Down Moses, early 18th century.

Theme for English B
It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me--we two--you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me--who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records--Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white--
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.

---Langston Hughes, Theme for English B, third stanza, 1949.

'Aboriginal Names'
What a name a city has--What name a State, river, sea, mountains, wood, prairie, has--is no indifferent matter.--All aboriginal names sound good. I was asking for something savage and luxuriant, and behold here are the aboriginal names. I see how they are being preserved. They are honest words--they give the true length, breadth, depth. They all fit. Mississippi!--the word winds with chutes--it rolls a stream three thousand miles long. Ohio, Connecticut, Ottawa, Monongahela, all fit.

---Walt Whitman, An American Primer, 1855-1860.

'English Language'
Never will I allude to the English Language or tongue without exultation. This is the tongue that spurns laws, as the greatest tongue must. It is the most capacious vital tongue of all--full of ese, definiteness and power--full of sustenance.--An enormous treasure-house, or range of treasure-houses, arsenals, granary, chock full with so many contributions from the north, and from the south, from Scandinavia, from Greece and Rome,--from Spaniards, Italians and the French--that its own sturdy home-dated Angles-bred words have long been outnumbered by the foreigners whom they lead--which is all good enough, and indeed must be.--America owes immeasurable respect and love to the past, and to many ancestries, for many inheritances--but of all that America has received from the past, from the mothers and fathers of laws, arts, letters, etc., by far the greatest inheritance is the English Language--so long in growing--so fitted.

---Walt Whitman, An American Primer, 1855-1860.

'When I First Saw Hoover Dam'
Since the afternoon in 1967 when I first saw Hoover Dam, its image has never been entirely absent from my inner eye. I will be talking to someone in Los Angeles, say, or New York, and suddenly the dam will materialize, its pristine concave face gleaming white against the harsh rusts and taupes and mauves of that rock canyon hundreds or thousands of miles from where I am. I will be driving down Sunset Boulevard, or about to enter a freeway, and abruptly those power transmission towers will appear before me, canted vertiginously over the tailrace. Sometimes I am confronted by the intakes and sometimes by the shadow of the heavy cable that spans the canyon and sometimes by the ominous outlets to unused spillways, black in the lunar clarity of the desert light. Quite often I hear the turbines. Frequently I wonder what is happening at the dam this instant, at this precise intersection of time and space, how much water is being released to fill downstream orders and what lights are flashing and which generators are in full use and which just spinning free.

---Joan Didion, The White Album, 1970.

The Anasazi drink from underground rivers.
The petroglyph cries out in the silence of the rock
The tourist looks at. The past is beautiful.
How few the implements and how carefully made
The dwelling place, against the wind and heat.
Looking at a photograph, as at a petroglyph,
How little there is to go on. 'The darkest objects
Reflect almost no light, or none at all.
Causing no changes in the salts in the emulsion.'
In the brilliant light and heart-stifling heat,
The scratchings on the surface of the rock,
Utterings, scriptions, bafflings of the spirit,
The bewildered eye reads nonsense in the dazzle;
In the black depth of the rock the river says nothing, Reflections, swift, intent, purposeless, flowing.

---David Ferry, Photograph from a Book: Six Poems, Poem V.

Since the beginning of our American history, we have been engaged in change--in a perpetual peaceful revolution--a revolution which goes on steadily, quietly adjusting itself to changing conditions--without the concentration camp of the quick-lime in the ditch. The world order which we seek is the cooperation of free countries, working together in a friendly, civilized society.

This nation has placed its destiny in the hands and heads and hearts of its millions of free men and women; and its faith in freedom under the guidance of God. Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere. Our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights or keep them. Our strength is our unity of purpose.

---Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Message to Congress, 1941.

'The Love of Business'
It is sometimes said that the ruling passion in America is the love of money. That seems to me a complete mistake. The ruling passion is the love of business, which is something quite different. ... His joy is in that business itself and in its further operation, in making it greater and better organized and a mightier engine in the general life. The adventitious personal profit in it is the last thing he thinks of, the last thing he is skillful in bringing about; and the same zeal and intensity is applied in managing a college, or a public office, or a naval establishment, as is lavished on private business, for it is not a motive of personal gain that stimulates to such exertions. It is the absorbing, satisfying character of the activities themselves: it is the art, the happiness, the greatness of them. So that in beginning life in such a society, which has developed a native and vital tradition out of its practice, you have good reason to feel that your spirit will be freed, that you will begin to realize a part of what you are living for.

---George Santayana, Tradition and Practice, 1904.

Have a safe, happy, and literary Fourth of July. (Written 07/03/06: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland